Dan Roganti, 43, collects and repairs vintage computers in a Millvale workshop piled with ancient electronics and robot parts. He also runs the Pittsburgh Robotics Society, a hobbyists' club, and restores old arcade machines for Pinball Perfection in Westview. Roganti's computer collection is chronicled on his Web site, Ragman's Space, ragooman.home.comcast.net.
How did you get started?
My brother, 11 years older, he was into electronics. This was during 'Nam. He took electronics in the Air Force, and I got a lot of hand-me-downs from him. I used to have parts from old jet planes I would hack apart. I still have the first [computer] my brother bought, in 1975: the Altair 680. I'm restoring it.
The front is just a bunch of toggle switches and lights.
You'd have to input a series of codes through the front panel to get it running. You had a whole slew of hardware you could attach to it. And the most desirable option was to hook up a keyboard and monitor. That was like gold back then.
You've got a build-it-yourself model over there, the Heathkit. The metal surface is all corroded.
I disassemble everything down to the screws, sandblast it down to the metal, so it'll look like new when it's done. It's from '78.
Will it work?
Oh yeah. Occasionally the electronic parts will age so it'll work for about a month, so you have to replace them. The most annoying thing is to have any of the capacitors dry up ... they will explode. You have to be cautious when you start up an old piece of electronic equipment.
What will it be able to do?
That's the whole thing: It can do basically the same thing today's PC can do, except it doesn't have all the frills. You can do word processing, spreadsheets, games of course.
How easy is it to get the old computers up and running?
If you're lucky, you find one that's still running. Lots of people have those. Individual components can be found from parts suppliers. There's an occasional weird component you can't find without stripping it from a machine. Ideally you find two to three of the same model so you can get one working.
A lot of your collection is still in storage?
I can show you pictures [on the Web]. There is the KAYPRO II. That's what they called the first luggable computer, the precursor to the laptop. You couldn't necessarily put it on your lap, because it was so damn heavy. But it was packaged in a portable case. The keyboard folds up and latches [over the monitor]. And the PET 2001: That was the early Commodore machine. Commodore was really popular during the '80s but they existed in the '70s.
It's shaped like a pyramid.
It has that futuristic look. Oh jeez, I forgot to tell you about Atari. Good old Atari ... they grew from the videogames. The Atari 400 just had a flat membrane keyboard ... it resembled a calculator. That was '79. It was only half a year later, at the end of '79, they came out with the Atari 800. These were all in fierce competition with the Apple II. Those were the big boys back then.
Do you have a dream machine you're searching for?
A Compucolor I ... that was 2,700 bucks back then. That was, as far as I know, the first integrated machine: The monitor, keyboard and computer were all in one box. It had color graphics. I saw it at a computer store in Manhattan [in 1975] ... people flocked Downtown to see it. It was just a dream.
Someone told me my old Mac Plus could be turned into an attractive planter.
Somebody made a nice fish tank out of one.
But that would be sacrilege, wouldn't it?